This article was originally published on the National Journal Experts’ Blog
President Obama is on the right track with his multiple efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. I only wish that it were a faster track and reflected a greater sense of urgency. His policies take account of some important current realities: The Cold War has ended (20 years ago); the greatest threat confronting the US and the world is no longer all-out nuclear war, but nuclear proliferation and nuclear-armed terrorists; and the United States has obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in “good faith” negotiations to achieve total nuclear disarmament.
The Obama administration made a smart move by ruling out using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It could have gone further, though. While the administration surely sees its posture as a useful threat for states not in compliance, this is a two-edged sword. Such threats also send a message to the rest of the world that the US still finds nuclear weapons useful and is willing to threaten their use. This continued reliance on nuclear weapons reinforces the current double standards of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” which in the long run will not hold. Some states may be encouraged, as was North Korea, to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities in the belief that they can deter an attack by a more powerful adversary.
The nuclear weapons reductions in the New START agreement are modest and leave more than enough capability on each side to destroy civilization, but they are a step forward and they do extend the important verification provisions of the first START agreement. They should be seen as a platform from which to continue the downward movement in nuclear arms to zero. Ultimately, zero is the only safe, secure and stable number of nuclear weapons in the world.
The US has enormous conventional force capability. While this allows us to reduce our reliance upon nuclear weapons, it also creates problems with the Russians in achieving further nuclear reductions. Russia has repeatedly expressed concerns with our missile defense deployments, our unwillingness to curtail space weaponization, and our Prompt Global Strike program that would entail putting conventional warheads on ICBMs. To get to substantially lower levels of nuclear arms and finally to zero, we are going to have to meet the concerns of the Russians and other countries that we are not simply making the world safe for US conventional weapons superiority.
Realists such as former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger support the new nuclear posture of the Obama administration. Critics such as Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain are playing nuclear politics with loaded barrels, pursuing outdated nuclear policies that are MAD in all senses, not only policies of Mutual Assured Destruction but policies based upon Mutual Assured Delusions. We cannot continue to base our security on nuclear weapons without running the risk of massive and catastrophic disaster.
I would urge President Obama to move rapidly in building on the progress he has made to this point. There is no scenario that would justify US use of nuclear weapons again. Nuclear deterrence is unstable and dangerous. Deterrence is a theory and it cannot be proven to be effective under all conditions in the future. It came close to failing on various occasions during the Cold War. Deterrence relies upon rationality, and it remains a dangerous assumption that all leaders will act rationally at all times. Deterrence is subject to human fallibility, and human fallibility and nuclear weapons are a flammable mixture.
A stronger indication that President Obama is indeed committed to seeking “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” would be a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons, coupled with taking the weapons off hair-trigger alert and continuing to work with the Russians and soon other nuclear weapon states on major reductions in arsenals. We should be pursuing a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. US leadership for this will be essential.